Echols Scholars Program Introducing New Director

Kelsey Johnson, Associate Professor of Astronomy and Director, Echols Scholars Program
Kelsey Johnson, Associate Professor of Astronomy and Director, Echols Scholars Program

Associate Professor Kelsey Johnson, an award-winning teacher and advocate for public astronomy education whose research on galaxy evolution has earned a National Science Foundation CAREER Award and other prominent honors, will be the next director of the Echols Scholars Program.

Kelsey Johnson, Associate Professor of Astronomy and Director, Echols Scholars Program
Kelsey Johnson, Associate Professor of Astronomy and Director, Echols Scholars Program

A member of the Department of Astronomy’s faculty since 2004, Johnson is succeeding Biology Professor Michael Timko as director of the undergraduate honors program, which dates back to its creation by the UVA Faculty Senate in 1960. Johnson’s appointment begins at the end of May.

“Kelsey brings great energy, creativity and collegiality to the Echols Scholars Program,” Arts & Sciences Dean Ian Baucom said. “As a leading research scientist and a sterling teacher, she offers unique and valuable insight in this important leadership role.”

The Echols Scholars Program, which offers selected students additional academic freedom and creative opportunities to pursue their academic goals, launched in 1964 with an inaugural class of a few dozen students. By 2012, the Echols Scholars student community had grown to comprise about 10 percent of the College’s undergraduate population.

“The Echols program has a rich history at UVA, and I’m excited to work closely with the Echols community to ensure that it is among the top undergraduate honors programs in the country,” Johnson said. “I am a zealous advocate of the importance of learning, and I want to find ways to enhance both the academic and non-academic learning opportunities for Echols Scholars.

 “The community of Echols Scholars and its alumni are one of the program’s great strengths. I am delighted to work with these committed and passionate advocates for the program.”

Johnson served on the College’s General Education Committee that crafted the proposal for the new curriculum approved last May by a faculty vote. She continues to serve as a member of the College Fellows, appointed by the Dean’s Office to design the Engagements courses for first-year students enrolling in the new pilot curriculum this fall.

A popular instructor in the College, Johnson draws a broad spectrum of science and non-science majors to her signature undergraduate course, “Unsolved Mysteries in the Universe.” The course was recently featured in an Illimitable video produced by the University. Elected to the UVA Academy of Teaching in 2015, Johnson was recently named as one of four “ACC Distinguished Professors” in the Atlantic Coast Conference of universities. Johnson’s other teaching awards include the UVA Center for Teaching Excellence’s All-University Teaching Award and the Z Society’s Distinguished Faculty Award.

Her work in the classroom is heavily influenced by embracing and promoting students’ sense of curiosity and appreciation for life-long learning. UVA students are not the only ones to benefit from her teaching. A champion for the importance of science literacy in modern society, Johnson also is the founding director of the award-winning “Dark Skies, Bright Kids” outreach program, which connects UVA astronomers, graduate students and volunteers to elementary schools in rural areas.

Her research spans galaxy evolution, with a focus on ancient star formation in the universe. In addition to the NSF CAREER Award, Johnson was named a 2007 Packard Fellow, a prestigious distinction awarded annually to 20 top young researchers from a variety of scientific disciplines. She also has been recognized with an NSF Distinguished lectureship for her research, which has been featured in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and other national news publications.

She has served as chair of the international ALMA Science Advisory Committee, and in 2016, she was appointed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to the Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee. Johnson serves as the Vice President for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific; earlier this year, she was elected to the board of the American Astronomical Society. 

Johnson earned her Ph.D. and M.S. in astrophysics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She received her B.A. in physics from Carleton College.